Confront Poverty: 10 Steps to Guide Your Journey

The issue of poverty in schools has been a significant obstacle to the aims of public education since the existence of the system.  That poverty adversely affects student performance is generally undisputed.  However, all poverty is not equal.  The complexity of how poverty interacts with children in the context of school is daunting.  Simply not having money is not the major obstacle to students.  The real problems have become more evident as researchers have begun to look at the concomitant effects of poverty and their relationship to mental health.

We typically try to “measure” poverty in schools by looking at the Free and Reduced Price Lunch rate for that school.  However, we must keep in mind that this number only accounts for one of four significant variables that school administrators need to keep in mind.Whether poverty is familial or neighborhood based makes a difference.  

It makes a difference if the nature of the poverty is familial or neighborhood based.  The intensity of poverty that a student is experiencing also varies significantly and has differing effects.  Third, the length of time in poverty that a student spends makes a big difference as well.  Lastly, the frequency, or incidence, of poverty in a neighborhood is important.

The Link Between Poverty and Poor Academic Performance and Brain Development

Many studies link the variables of poverty to suppressed academic performance and intelligence.  The New York State Education Department is able to predict, with reasonable accuracy, the performance of a school on State Assessments based on the frequency of poverty in the school. 

In order to offset the effects of poverty, schools should be intentional in working with these children:

  1. Make efforts to understand student contexts according to the four variables of poverty – family/neighborhood, intensity, length of time, and frequency of poverty in their neighborhood.
  2. Look at aberrant student behavior not through the lens of “what’s wrong with you?” but instead with the lens of “What happened to you?”
  3. Identify an individual in the school to work with social service agencies to coordinate services and treatment objectives
  4. Recognize that until students suffering from PTSD feel safe, most attempts to treat them are actually re-traumatizing them – create safe space for them
  5. Create predictable routines, expectations and responses
  6. Allocate appropriate resources to mental health needs – mental illness is still dramatically underdiagnosed due to stigma and lack of understanding
  7. Address food insecurity through breakfast in the classroom and Community Eligibility Provisions
  8. Work to engage parents not just with school, but also to help organize the neighborhood environment
  9. Keep close tabs on the progress of these students – frequent assessments so that instructors can keep an eye on their “aim-line”
  10. Closely monitor student “moves” and put supports in place anytime a child changes residency.

Understanding the Causes of Poor Student Performance is Becoming More Nuanced  

On one level, we know that poor students miss out on opportunities like private tutors or music lessons.  We can easily understand why a mom working three jobs is not able to read to her child every day and that the student comes to school with a vocabulary deficit.  However, there are far more insidious effects at play.

Poverty in the home, neighborhood poverty, intense poverty, and greater lengths of time in poverty contribute to a number of environmental issues: neighborhood disorder (Hurd, 2013), environmental violence (Hurd, 2013) (Hannon, 2005), poor nutrition (Kleinman, 1998) (Lewit, 1997), childhood neglect (Nikulina, 2011), higher rates of parental incarceration (Hashimoto, 2011) (Hay, 2007), higher crime rates (Hay, 2007), lower incidence of adult diplomas (Schafft K. A., 2008), increased rates of mental illness (Hurd, 2013) (McLeod, 2000) (Phillips, 2002), and higher rates of mobility (Schafft K. A., 2008).  Children in poor families are more likely to have asthma, are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability, and five times as likely to be in poor health and to miss more school (Bloom B, 2013)

These factors play into elevated rates of anxiety, Major Depressive Disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  These are significant mental illnesses that present difficulty for children in many areas of their lives beyond school, but school is a very visible place where the effects can be readily measured.

The academic effects of poverty are legion, including reduced vocabulary, delayed reading skills, long term limited reading ability, reduced academic ability, reduced IQ, suppressed SAT performance, reduced graduation rates, reduced college going rates, and higher rates of discipline and suspension.

Poverty Is a Vicious Cycle

Poverty creates mental illness and mental illness, in return, reinforces poverty.  Children in impoverished neighborhoods are much more likely to be exposed to environmental violence, food insecurity, and neighborhood disorganization, all of which contribute to elevated rates of anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Children suffering from mental illness do significantly worse in school, for a number of reasons.  Children with anxiety, depression, or PTSD, have tremendous difficulty focusing and concentrating in the classroom.  As the intensity of the illness increases, so does the difficulty engaging in long range planning and other executive functioning skills.  Additionally, these children have low thresholds of frustration and will act out in the absence of pro-social coping mechanisms. 

Poverty also reinforces cycles of mobility.  The rates of eviction and foreclosure in poor neighborhoods are elevated in comparison to working class or middle class neighborhoods (Schafft K. A., 2008).  Each move delays a child’s learning by about four months.

The effects of poverty play out in many and difficult to detect ways.  However, it also plays out in some ways that are all too easy to see.  The effect of poverty on a child’s ability to be successful in school is readily discernable in the hard data of student achievement, suspension rates, and dropout rates. 

The manner in which schools respond to the effects of poverty makes a difference.  Following a framework, like the steps listed above can help a school district step forward and make a difference in the lives of these children who, through no fault of their own, are weighted down by the effects of poverty.  We can make the difference.   


Bloom B, J. L. (2013). Summary health statistics for U.S. children: National Health Interview Survey, 2012. National Center for Health Statistics.

Hannon, L. E. (2005). Extremely Poor Neighborhoods and Homicide. Social Science Quarterly, 1418-1434.

Hashimoto, E. J. (2011). Class matters."J. Crim. L. & Criminology. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 31-76.

Hay, C. E. (2007). Compounded risk: The implications for delinquency of coming from a poor family that lives in a poor community. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 593-605.

Hurd, N. M. (2013). Neighborhoods, Social Support, and African American Adolescents' Mental Health Outcomes: A Multilevel Path Analysis. Child development, 858-87.

Kleinman, R. E. (1998). Hunger in children in the United States: potential behavioral and emotional correlates. Pediatrics, 1-6.

Lewit, E. M. (1997). Childhood hunger. The future of children, 128-137.

McLeod, J. D. (2000). Poverty and child emotional and behavioral problems: Racial/ethnic differences in processes and effects. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 137-161.

Nikulina, V. C. (2011). The role of childhood neglect and childhood poverty in predicting mental health, academic achievement and crime in adulthood. American Journal of Community Psychology, 309-321.

Phillips, S. D. (2002). Parental incarceration among adolescents receiving mental health services. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 385-399.

Schafft, K. A. (2008). Poverty, residential mobility, and persistence across urban and rural family literacy programs in Pennsylvania. Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal.

Author Laurence (Larry) Spring is the Superintendent of Schenectady City Schools